Books by Stewart Elliott Guthrie

Released: Jan. 1, 1993

An erudite argument that religion is ``systematic anthropomorphism: the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman things or events.'' Students of religion and philosophy may sniff a familiar bone here. What Guthrie (Anthropology/Fordham Univ.) proposes isn't really new but, rather, an updated and inflated version of a viewpoint best argued by Hume and Feurbach (the latter said that ``theology is inverted anthropology''). Guthrie's main contribution is to spot anthropomorphism everywhere, and to tie this apparently innate mode of perception to Pascal's wager that belief in God is a better bet than nonbelief. According to Guthrie—who draws on evidence from cognitive science and experimental psychology, as well as from anthropology—people of every age and culture have projected human attributes onto inanimate objects and events. This takes place not only in religion but also in art and literature (T.S. Eliot's ``evening spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table''), not to mention entomology (``division of labor'' among bees) and physics (``Maxwell's demon''). Even animals do it, as when chimps shake their fists at the clouds. Like Pascal, we all anthropomorphize because life is uncertain. Is that a bear or a boulder looming in the twilight? Better bet it's a bear and take the necessary precautions. All this is provocative—but questions arise: Is Guthrie mistaking the nature of metaphor (is Eliot's striking image a ``general, spontaneous, and unconscious'' event, as Guthrie defines anthropomorphizing)? How can one evolve a theory of religion while ignoring the testimony of mystics, saints, and other religious adepts? Like all severely reductionist schemas, this one leaves multiple strands untied. Guthrie's idea works as a description of religion rather than as an explanation, and winds up as another ticklish theory to add to those (by Freud, Durkheim, Geertz, Bellah, etc.) that he spends so much time dismantling. Looks for faces in the clouds—and winds up building castles in the air. Lively but unconvincing. (Thirty halftones, 10 line drawings—not seen.) Read full book review >